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Last updated at 11:06 BST, Friday, 23 July 2010

Soon and when

Man looking at train timetables

How soon can I get a train out of here?

A question from Anwar in Syria:
What is the difference between the words 'soon', and 'when'? For example:

  • How soon is he going to turn up with the money?
  • When is he going to turn up with the money?

Gareth Rees answers:

Click below to hear the answer:

Hello Anwar. Thank you for writing in to ask about the difference between 'soon' and 'when'. As you know, both of these words refer to time, and we use 'when' to ask about the time that something happens. For example:

  • When does the train leave?
  • When did the first person land on the moon?

Basically, in these questions, when means 'at what time'. We also use 'when' to show that something, an event perhaps, indicates a time that something else happens. For example:

  • I'll give you the money when I see you again.
  • I was unhappy when I got my exam results.

So, 'when' is the normal way to refer to time, but 'soon' carries an extra meaning of a short time from now, or a short time from an event. For example:

  • The train leaves soon. Hurry up!
  • At first, I didn't know anybody at university, but I soon made new friends and really enjoyed myself.

To understand the difference between your two example questions, you need to remember that 'soon' emphasises that something happens in a short time from now.


In your example, 'When is he going to turn up with the money?' the speaker simply wants to know the time that he is going to turn up with the money.

In your second example, 'how soon is he going to turn up with the money?' the speaker is emphasising that this should happen quickly, that it should be in a short time from now.

We often use this expression at work or in business, when time and speed are very important. For example:

  • I need the report urgently. How soon can you finish it?
  • The new MP3 players are very popular. How soon can you deliver some more?

It is possible to use 'when' in those examples, but then there would be no emphasis on the need for speed, on the fact that something should happen in a short time from now.

So, thank you again for writing to us at BBC Learning English, and if you have any further questions, I hope to hear from you soon.

About Gareth Rees

Gareth Rees

Gareth Rees has a BA (hons) in History and Philosophy of Science, CTEFLA, and DELTA. He has taught EFL, EAP and Business English in China, Spain and England, and he is the co-author of the Language Leader Elementary and Pre-Intermediate English language course books (Pearson Longman). He currently teaches English in the Language Centre at the University of the Arts, London.

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